Well, it’s 2020. Although you wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking at the Academy Award nominees announced on Jan. 13 at the crack of dawn by Issa Rae and John Cho from the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. Martin Scorsese made a film featuring the likes of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino. A towering war piece paints itself as the World War I British rival of Saving Private Ryan. A movie by big-name Hollywood—Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt—about Hollywood clocks in at almost 3 hours and still isn’t the longest nominated movie. Throw in a car race, a villain origin story, an uncomfortable look at divorce, an adaptation of a book that recently celebrated its sesquicentennial, a South Korean black comedy thriller, and a comedic Hitler, and you’ve got your 2020 contenders. 2020 features a lot of mostly the same types of movies as years past, and yet, it does feel a little different.
Although they look pretty straightforward at first glance, upon pulling back the layers of these very white, mostly male nominees, some ingenuity emerges. Parasite is the first Korean film to be nominated for Best Picture, and Bong Joon Ho is the first Korean filmmaker to be nominated for Best Director. I can’t speak to the film’s specifics, since I have not had the opportunity to see it yet (it comes out on DVD on Jan. 28, 2020), but everyone who has seen it seems to rave about it, including former President Barack Obama.
Joaquin Phoenix is a shoo-in for Best Actor. And the reason is because he was the best actor. Joker is haunting. It is a completely different take on a comic book villain origin story, and I could not take my eyes off of Phoenix’s gaunt frame as his character descended into madness. The time period of Joker is ambiguous, the air crackles with intensity, and the acting is spectacular.
In an interview, Phoenix described the film as a Rorschach test; how people interpret it says something about them and not the film itself. I’m inclined to agree. When it was released, Joker was initially lambasted, sometimes by people who had not even seen the movie, for sympathizing with potential mass shooters and becoming the handbook for wannabe murderers. What I saw in Joker was the mental anguish and disintegration of a character who is both sympathetic and horrifying. The film is supposed to be unsettling. It is dangerous to claim that art causes or inspires violent behavior. Sometimes, film holds a mirror to the world, and that makes us uncomfortable. Maybe it should.
Renée Zellweger will be Best Actress for her outing as an end-of-life Judy Garland in Judy. The film is good, but her performance is excellent. No one can ever be Judy Garland. She was a shooting star who was broken by the industry that was graced with her presence. We never deserved her—Hollywood certainly did not deserve her—and Zellweger does her story a justice she never lived to receive.
The Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories are fairly uninteresting this year. Most likely, Brad Pitt and Laura Dern will win for two OK movies. Kathy Bates’ nomination for Richard Jewell was a happy surprise, as was Florence Pugh’s for Little Women. Anthony Hopkins was not as good as Jonathan Pryce in The Two Popes, and neither has a real chance at winning in his respective category. If I were an Academy voter (I wish), I would vote for Al Pacino, since his performance as Jimmy Hoffa was the brightest highlight for me in The Irishman, and Laura Dern, whose no-holds-barred divorce lawyer in Marriage Story was the only reason I kept watching.
If 1917 fails to win Best Picture, I will be quite stunned. War movies attract audiences of all ages and walks of life with their built-in drama and emotion. Interestingly, this film does not glamorize patriotism or sacrifice or political endgames and instead shows war more as how it really is: hell.
1917 is a fantastic film with a constant hum of high tension produced by its single-shot cinematography, even though the style sometimes feels a bit like a video game. I was on the edge of my seat and reaching for my sleeve to wipe my tears in a fairly full Sunday-morning showing. After reading about 1917, I was ecstatic to learn that a war film was co-written by a woman, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and she was nominated for it. Long after watching most of these films, the two that continue to pop into my head are Joker and 1917. Of the two, 1917 is the more encompassing picture.
Who Was Left Out
Snubs are going to be a big theme of this year’s awards. Once again, the Academy cannot seem to find a single woman director who is as good as (or, gasp, better than!) five men, even though one of the Best Picture nominees was directed by a woman and there are more top movies directed by women now than ever before.
Emotionally raw yet amazingly funny, The Farewell and its leading lady, Awkwafina, received no nominations, even after she very deservedly won a Golden Globe Award for her fantastic performance. Taron Egerton and his Elton John biopic Rocketman were left out of the major categories, although the music got a nod in Best Original Song. Frozen 2, a much better film than its predecessor, was not nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, but Missing Link, a film that literally put my family members to sleep over the holidays, is the front-runner, since it won the Golden Globe. I’m disappointed, yet unsurprised.
Nominees at the Library
Most of the nominated films will circulate well in a library setting. Last year, I purchased all of the 2019 Oscar nominees for my library. The films that circulated best were Bohemian Rhapsody in first place, A Star Is Born in second place, and Green Book and Black Panther tied for third place, with the former given a boost by its Best Picture win. The movies were checked out hundreds of times over the course of the year. Although The Favourite was certainly not my favorite, there is no way that, without the recognition of the Academy or the library featuring it in an Oscars display, an indie film about early 18th-century England would be watched in rural Pennsylvania.
Some of this year’s films are already being discussed and requested by patrons, such as 1917, Little Women, and Ford v Ferrari. However, the biggest issue for libraries and the Oscars that will only grow as time marches on is the rise of streaming. Last year, I advocated for the Oscars to hop on board the streaming train in order to maintain audience interest. However, the issue with platform films and their actors being nominated, such as The Irishman (Netflix), American Factory (Netflix), Marriage Story (Netflix), and The Two Popes (Netflix), is that streaming services have yet to acquiesce to releasing their original films on DVD. Understandably, they fear that a DVD release will hurt subscriptions. People who are unable to afford subscription services, those without credit cards to sign up to even use the free trials, and homes without broadband internet service pay the price. These people are not only left out of the national pop culture conversation, but they are also barred from enjoying some really amazing, thoughtful, and captivating pieces of art. How can libraries help fill this void without also voiding their terms of service with streaming companies? It is a question we are very likely going to have to tackle.
Although the 2020 Oscar movies in many ways are the same, the challenges they pose both on and off the screen are certainly different. What is the true meaning of evil? Will American audiences ever manage to master reading subtitles and watching films at the same time like the rest of the world? Does doing bad things make us bad people? Can Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet make a bad movie? Can we continue to love each other even after we have torn each other apart? Why is an alleged abuser and rape apologist such as Quentin Tarantino still being heaped with praise in a post-Weinstein, #MeToo Hollywood? Do our sacrifices have meaning, or are we just all trying to get home at the end of the day? Can Hitler ever really be funny? I only know the answer to one of those questions. I’ll let you take a stab at all the rest.
Movie posters come from oscar.go.com/news/nominations/best-picture-oscar-nominations-2020.